Program Notes: Powerful & Lyrical

“You have no idea how it feels to hear such a giant marching behind you,” lamented Johannes Brahms, who wondered if he would ever be able to complete a symphony. The titan who cast such a shadow over Brahms was, of course, Beethoven. But with the success of this First Symphony, Brahms seems to have exorcised the inner demon that had tormented him for so long, and the joyful Second Symphony followed within a year. This weekend, we begin a traversal of all four of the German master’s immortal works in the genre.


Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Johannes Brahms
(Born 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, German; Died 3 April 1897 in Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1855-76

Premiere: 4 November 1876; Karlsruhe, Germany

Last MSO Performance: May 2013; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 45 minutes

As we embark upon a journey—this weekend and next—through the symphonies of Johannes Brahms, it might be fruitful to place him in historical context, particularly where his contemporaries are concerned. Remember that Brahms (b. 1833) was a younger contemporary of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), a man often credited (or blamed, depending upon one’s perspective) with what would eventually lead to the dissolution of tonality: His highly chromatic, unresolved cadences paved the way for Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique in the early 20th century. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the “father of modern orchestration,” penned a treatise on the subject and was writing large-scale works that called for an orchestra of unprecedented size. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), that greatest of all Romantic-era piano virtuosos, was writing tone poems for large orchestra that sought to illustrate subjects taken from Romantic literature, mythology, imaginative fantasy, and even recent history.

Into this scenario, place Brahms. It might be argued that he set an obstacle for himself by rejecting the “descriptive” elements just outlined. In his orchestral music, you won’t hear rippling harps, sensuous English horns, or explosive attacks from the percussion section. No, his instrumental “formula” is more Classical, more backward-looking, as is his approach to musical form. He set Beethoven as his mighty—and rather intimidating—example.

The compositional history of Brahms’s First Symphony is long and complicated. Suffice it to say that the process took nearly 20 years—with detours for Ein deutsches Requiem, two orchestral serenades, the first piano concerto, and the “Haydn” Variations, among others—but the final product made it worth the wait. As with all four symphonies, Brahms here works his way through a weighty opening movement through smaller inner movements to a towering Finale.

Timpani strokes and an anxiety-ridden ascending chromatic violin line launch the 37-bar introduction that will lead to the audacious Allegro, a Sturm und Drang statement replete with anguished intensity, yearning lyricism, and ferocious rhythmic power. Enjoy its expressive harmonies and modulations, its deep orchestral colors, and its expansive melodies. Brahms then follows the Classical tradition of putting the slow movement second. This Andante sostenuto is set in 3/4 in the unexpected key of E major. A solo oboe sings the dolce melody that will become the soul of the movement, only to be brought back more elaborately by a solo violin at the end.

Brahms’s third movements can’t be classified as minuets, scherzos, or even as dance movements. Rather, the master created a blend of minuet, scherzo, and Austrian l ndler. In this instance, we might be justified in labeling it an intermezzo: Set in A-flat major, it is warm and gracious in the same manner as the piano pieces that actually bear that designation. It encloses an energetic trio in B major, later echoed in the movement’s quiet closing measures.

Like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Brahms’s First began in foreboding C minor. And like that work by his great idol, Brahms’s First ultimately triumphs in the key of C major. When it was pointed out that Brahms’s big Allegro melody recalls Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the master retorted, “Any ass can see that!” (Like Beethoven’s melody, Brahms’s has been fashioned into a felicitous hymn tune.) This sunlit Finale’s final moments are surely some of the most uplifting in the entire symphonic repertoire.

Recommended Recording: Wilhelm Fürtwangler, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (10 February 1952 live performance; Tahra/Harmonia Mundi)



Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Johannes Brahms
(Born 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, German; Died 3 April 1897 in Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1877

Premiere: 30 December 1877; Vienna

Last MSO Performance: November 2013; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 40 minutes

The D major symphony is brighter, more translucent, and more delicate than the C minor symphony. This is noticeably reflected in its instrumentation: bucolic flutes, oboes, and clarinets are given pride of place. When he needs to, though, Brahms can summon the brass’s heavy artillery to provide strength and power.

The opening movement, the longest of any in the composer’s symphonies, “resembles an agreeable landscape into which the setting sun casts its sublime and somber lights.” So wrote Hermann Kretzschmar in an analysis published during Brahms’s lifetime. In addition to this contented scenario, there are moments of drama and darkness, when the overall lighter orchestration gives way to richly harmonized phrases for trombones and tuba: “spectral effects,” as musicologist Karl Geiringer depicts them. Following a beautiful passage for solo horn, the movement ends quietly.

The Adagio non troppo opens with a serious, pondering theme in the cellos, but within a few pages, the woodwinds usher in a lighter atmosphere. This contrast of mood obtains throughout the movement. Despite a formal structure overall, the short thematic elements—some of heartbreaking beauty—follow closely upon one another, denying us the simple repetition of songlike melodies.  

Set in the sylvan key of G major, the Allegretto grazioso is probably the most immediately accessible movement in the master’s four symphonies. Cast as a rondo, it’s a serenade wherein a rustic tune in the oboe alternates with more emphatic sections that feature dancing strings and winds. The D major Finale, animated and ebullient, exudes confident happiness. (Kretschmar likens its wit and exuberance to that of Haydn.) Its rip-roaring coda erupts in a glorious burst of orchestra brass, as Brahms’s “Pastoral” symphony “ends in Dionysiac jubilation.” (Geiringer)

Recommended Recording: Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.